Childhood: A Biography Review of a Place – A Classic from the Deep South | Autobiographical books

IThe cult fa writer’s aura lasts long enough, and their work may live up to the status of Penguin Classics. At Leas, that’s what happened Harry Cruzauthor of numerous Southern Gothic novels inhabited by whimsy and sorcery, including his most famous novel, Snakes feast. Born in Georgia in 1935, Cruz passed away in 2012 and claimed to have sold just a few thousand hardcover books during his lifetime (a series of famous fans including Sean Penn and Madonna failed to translate into mainstream popularity). Having published eight novels in as many years, starting with Gospel singer In 1968, in his forties, Crews turned to fiction to recount the first six years of his life alive and testify to a “lifestyle gone forever out of the world”. his diary Childhood: a biography of Makan It was first published in 1978 and has now been reissued (along with Gospel singer) With a loving foreword by Tobias Wolf. In the United States, there was a similar outburst of enthusiasm for Crews and his work, with The New Yorker description recently childhood as “one of the finest memoirs ever written by an American”.

Childhood memoirs (and novels) have a formal difficulty with the very essence of childhood itself: If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. While adult lives, differentiated by occupation, sexual function, and cumulative experience are infinitely diverse, all childhoods are fundamentally the same–which is why the subtitle of Crews’ book is so crucial. Beacon County, Georgia, in the 1920s and 1930s, is depicted as a violent, pre-modern backwater of poverty and squalor inhabited by the various deformed: scars, missing fingers, mutilated ears, and mutilated limbs more common than perfect. Harry and his friends pored through the Sears and Roebuck catalog in amazement about “how perfect all the people in its pages were,” even though he “had long known it was all a lie” and there certainly could be no way to live in this world without distortion.

The first and most moving of the two parts of the book tells the events before Crews was born, depicting the biological father who died when Crews was two years old. We first meet his father as a very young man, stricken with depression after being “clapped” during a sloppy sexual encounter with a Native American girl (after which he lost a testicle). This man “I never knew but whose existence never left” haunts both Harry and childhood As an absence of formation, personality, because it cannot be known in reality, takes on mythical proportions in the boy’s imagination. Harry and his older brother are raised by his foul-mouthed mother (“you lads get the most idiot’s nostrils ever”) and his father’s brother, who takes whiskey and eventually shoots a shotgun at the family home, prompting the mother and sons to flee to Jacksonville.

Amidst the harsh rural life, we see the glamor of the writer-to-be cast of someday youth. The aforementioned Sears, Roebuck catalog is a collection of invented stories, Harry and his friends imagine the conflicts, lusts, and alliances that form between the two models, whom Harry envisions knowing each other: going out, violence, hate between them as well as love.” Crews asserts that he was raised in an oral culture of storytelling and that Composing stories “was not only a means of understanding the way we lived but also a defense against it”.

Southern slang is faithfully rendered in the dialogue — “When I told Hearn about that ogre that got picked up and died after her skirt-snake was on, I knew the same thing had happened to me and I keep going out there” — as is the era and totally informal area of ​​racism.

Georgia, 1939.
Georgia, 1939. Photo: Glasshouse Images/Alamy

Typical of memoirs and especially of childhood, Crews’ book lacks any strong narrative pull beyond the mere passage of time, settling for descriptive neutrality in its succession of anecdotes and incidents, some more engaging than others. The degree to which the reader enjoys it will depend on how much he desires to find details of country life in times past (for me, there were quite a few boring passages). The rustic world Crews evokes is cruel and brutal, but a gentle, unsentimental sadness softens the pages, and his generous, forgiving consciousness refuses to come down hard on the volatile characters who make up his past. Everyone has their share of grief and shock, including him. After he falls into a tub of boiling water used to scald the hair from slaughtered pigs, he watches his skin peel off, leaving severe burns, and he is lucky to survive. When he catches polio, his legs are bent backwards strangely (a faith healer assures him that the severe disfigurement will not be permanent and so it turns out). Both experiences are an education in empathy that will later serve him well as a novelist: “I hated him, frightened him, humiliated him. I felt how lonely and wild it was to be a stranger.”

It seems to write childhood It took its toll on the crew. After that, heavy drinking escalated and he endured a decade of imaginary drought. In maintaining a fading form of American life, he admits his incurable arrogance: “If you have no place in the house, you will have very little… There is no place I can think of as home.”

childhood By Harry Crews Published by Penguin Classics (£12.99). to support guardian And observer Order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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